Gift-giving strategies of the Magi

The Christmas season brings many emotions to the surface. Most of these are positive. People are more generous and move about with a smile on their lips and a song in their heart. But other emotions, like envy and greed, can be destructive. The hectic schedule, many tasks and close quarters filled with family and friends are breeding grounds for stress. Clutter does its part to add to the Christmas stress as well.

After filling our houses with guests and decorations, we add gifts to the mix. While the guests will go home (eventually!) and the decorations will return to the attic, most of the gifts will remain, adding to our already overstuffed closets and drawers. It’s no surprise that many people make a New Year’s resolution to get the clutter under control.

But what if there was another way? What if we changed the way we give gifts so that they don’t add to the clutter — so that Christmas doesn’t become another echo of the culture’s desire to acquire more?

Clearing the clutter

Many families and groups of friends establish limits on gift-giving as a way to reduce the gift glut. The most common way to limit gifts is by setting a spending limit. But this method may not help with clutter. If the limit is set too high, there’s no change in the amount of stuff we acquire. If the limit is too low, we may receive fewer things, but these things may be less useful. (Ask any schoolteacher. She likely has enough “World’s Best Teacher” mugs to start her own coffee shop.)

Another strategy for limiting gifts is to require that all gifts be handmade. That’s a great strategy when Uncle Carlos is a talented photographer and you have empty walls, or when your mom knits gorgeous sweaters. It’s less helpful when you receive handcrafted knickknacks that you have no room to display. Faced with these less-than-helpful options, some people decide to forego gift-giving entirely, depriving themselves of the joy of giving.

Can you avoid adding to the clutter while still giving the gifts that are so much a part of our Christmas traditions? You can if you use the first Christmas gifts as your example. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Magi from the East journeyed to see Jesus and, upon finding him, presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts — though somewhat unusual — can teach us how to give gifts that don’t add to the clutter.

Gifts of service

The first gift that the Magi gave Jesus was gold, the proper gift for a king, exemplifying wealth and power. But Jesus was not the usual sort of king. From his birth in a stable to his burial in a borrowed tomb, Jesus made it clear that his kingdom was not about money and might, but service and mercy. The King of Kings did not come to be served, but to serve. In Jesus’ kingdom, to reign is to serve. And that understanding of kingdom offers us a gift-giving hint.

You might think that the gift of gold is a hint to just give money and be done with it, but Jesus’ model of kingship reminds us that placing ourselves at someone’s service is a much richer gift — and it doesn’t add to the clutter! Here are some gift ideas that follow the Magi’s golden example:

◗ Put your skills to work for someone’s benefit. Offer to do home repair or painting, tailoring or mending. Fill someone’s freezer with home-cooked meals.

◗ Give the gift of your time. Offer rides or to run errands for those who can no longer drive. Record family stories, edit the video and share the results. Scan family photos, then label and organize them.

◗ Give to those in need — with a personal touch. Donate to a charity that is special to the gift recipient — for example, a hunger charity for a great cook or an educational charity for a teacher. Donate someone’s favorite children’s book to their grade school library. Donate plants to the park your father passes on his daily walk.

Story of the Magi

Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12) recounts the Magi’s visit to Jesus. Following a star, they find their way to Jerusalem and an audience with King Herod. When they inquire about the birth of the new king of the Jews, they learn that Micah prophesied that he would be born in Bethlehem (5:1). Traveling to Bethlehem, the Magi meet Jesus and Mary, worship Jesus and give him gifts.

Gifts of enrichment

The second gift of the Magi was frankincense, a gift appropriate for a priest. In Jesus’ time, the temple priests used incense as part of the liturgy. The smoke rising from the burning incense symbolized prayers rising to God. The priests offered incense each day, just as we offer our prayers to God each day. The Magi’s gift recognized Jesus as the true high priest, offering the perfect sacrifice to his Father. In our liturgy today, we join all that we have done to the perfect sacrifice of Christ, offering it to God in thanksgiving for all he has done for us. The need to offer our lives in the liturgy gives us some hints about meaningful gifts that don’t add to clutter. Enriching someone’s life will give them more to offer in thanksgiving and will add memories, not stuff:

◗ Give the gift of an experience that will make the recipient’s life richer (for example, tickets to a show) or let her do something she’s always wanted to do (sky-diving).

◗ Help someone learn something new. Give language classes to someone who has always wanted to visit Paris or a woodworking class to someone who wants to learn to use his grandfather’s tools.

◗ Help someone deepen an interest they already have. Send a good cook to a class to learn a new technique or give a dancer a gift certificate to a master class.

◗ Give someone the opportunity to enjoy something they don’t do often. For example, give parents dinner and a movie, with babysitting included!

Gifts to be used

The final gift of the Magi was myrrh, a rich-smelling perfume often blended into oil. In Jesus’ time, it was used to anoint bodies for burial. It was a fitting gift for Jesus, who sacrificed himself to save us. Two types of sacrifices were celebrated in the Jerusalem Temple. In the first, part of the offering was burned as a gift to God, while the rest of the animal, grain or oil being offered was shared by the priests, those making the sacrifice, their family and friends. In the second type — the burned offering — the whole sacrifice would be offered to God and consumed by fire. What sort of clutter-free gifts do these sacrifices suggest?

◗ Instead of individual gifts, give a gift that a family can share to bring them closer, like a membership to a museum or zoo.

◗ Replace something at the end of its useful life, like a favorite sweater or a much-used appliance. Instead of adding to the clutter, one item goes in and one goes out.

◗ Give something that can be wholly consumed, like food, movie passes or subscriptions.

The Magi’s gifts recognized Jesus as king, priest and sacrifice. As we do our Christmas shopping, we should follow their example. Think about the recipients and give a gift that speaks to who they are.

Mary Elizabeth Sperry writes from Maryland and is the author of “Making Room for God: Decluterring and the Spiritual Life” (Ave Maria, $15.95).